A common term that is thrown about with reference to two or more quarrelling individuals is ‘fighting like India-Pakistan’. Such is the shared history of the two neighbours that is stained with conflicts, wars, terror and no possible settlement in the near future. One step forward in the direction of peace is, more often than not, countered by ten steps backward somewhere else. What happened in 1999 was similar. India and Pakistan had just concluded successful testing of their newfound nuclear power and in the larger international interest put forth the Lahore Declaration- an official instrument to curb the growing unrest, develop a sense of mutual confidence and deter both nations from utilizing their nuclear power. Signed in February 1999, the Declaration was a promise towards peace, stability and resolution. But while the Government of Pakistan, seemingly, extended a hand of truce, the Pakistani Military had other ideas. In the winter of the same year, Pakistani soldiers disguised as local militants infiltrated across the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border between the two states, and occupied strategically important positions on the Indian side. This outright violation by the Pakistani Military called for full-fledged retaliation by the Indian Military in the form of the Kargil War; an important and costly milestone in the coffin of India and Pakistan’s decaying brotherhood. While talking about Kargil, it is imperative to understand that the War was not an isolated, single-day event that resulted in an unambiguous victory for India. It was made up of several smaller battles and operations, each of which has been instrumental in turning the winds of war in India’s favour. Probably the most important of them all was the Battle of Tololing- the battle that changed the course of the War.
Indian Army positions on Tololing Top (Source: India Today)
Tololing’s strategic importance lies in its pivotal domination of National Highway 1A which was the lifeline to Leh. Tololing was also connected to Point (Pt) 5140, another important structure where Pakistani intruders were positioned, taking shots at the highway. The scraggy vegetation of the region, uneven rocks and boulders and the altitude-advantage that the Pakistanis held threatened to compromise the safety of the highway- making intervention urgent and necessary. The task of clearing and securing Tololing was initially given to the 18 Grenadiers. The Grenadiers began their operations on May 22. The inhospitable terrain provided little help to the Indian Army as their advance was halted even before it could begin. The temperatures hovered at a low -5 to -11°C, harsh winds howled across the ridges, there was little or no cover from the intruders hiding amongst the rocks and movement was only possible on moonless nights to avoid detection. According to India Today special correspondents, it would take at least 11 hours for a fit, acclimatised soldier to climb from the base to the top at a height of 16,000 ft. The Grenadiers kept a strong fight on but they suffered heavy losses- both men and material. While the Indian Army continued to bolster artillery and firepower, deadly cross-fire from the enemy hiding in the rocks made their task more difficult with each passing day.
Visual representation of Tololing and its neighbouring tough terrain (Source: India Today)
But Tololing’s capture was imperative if India wanted to clear the mountains of the intruders. Armed with the perseverance and resolve that the Indian Army is known for, the 18 Grenadiers along with the fairly new 2 Rajputana Rifles joined forces to eliminate the intruders. Attack plans were chalked out, mock operations were conducted on a nearby ridge similar to Tololing, Military intelligence provided a fairly good estimate of the potential locations of intruders, weapons and ammunition were test-fired beforehand and heavy ammunition was carried up the slope by washermen, cobblers and barbers of the battalion as well. On the night of June 12, the teams initiated a well-prepared frontal attack. For more than four hours before the attack, as many as 120 artillery guns pounded the Tololing ridges incessantly, firing at least 10,000 shells- 50,000 kg of TNT (Trinitrotoluene). The teams named Abhimanyu, Bheem and Arjun climbed up to their designated positions to launch the assault. The teams surrounded the intruders entirely. One team went straight up, another went to a lower ridge to prevent the enemy from escaping from there; a team of Grenadiers, meanwhile, provided cover fire to prevent the intruders from nearby ridges from approaching. Though the progress was slow, the impact of the incessant firing was evident on the faltering Pakistani troops.
Some of the Indian Army’s most courageous men were in action that night. Captain Vijayant Thapar from 2 Rajputana Rifles led his platoon into the attack with a ferocity that took the Pakistanis by surprise. Captain Thapar and his platoon’s attack inflicted so much damage on the enemy that one of their bunkers was informally called the Barbaad Bunker. Another shock to the Pakistanis came in the form of an attack of a reserve platoon led by Major Vivek Gupta that attacked from the rear. As the Company attacked from the open, they were directly in the enemy’s line of fire. Undeterred, Major Gupta fired a rocket launcher at the enemy’s position and charged on before the enemy could recover. He was hit by two bullets but that didn’t stop him from engaging in a fierce hand-to-hand combat and killing three enemy soldiers before succumbing to his injuries. Major Vivek Gupta was killed in action exactly on the same day when he joined Rajputana Rifles, seven years before. He was given the nation’s second highest gallantry award, Maha Vir Chakra posthumously. Following suit, the other soldiers and teams advanced and Tololing Top belonged to India once again.
Left: Captain Vijayant Thapar, Vir Chakra
Right: Major Vivek Gupta, MVC (P)
The Pakistani troops held Tololing Top as a pivotal point from where they coordinated with other troops at similar heights. Once Tololing fell, it took the Indian Army a mere 6 days to evict well-trenched Pakistani troops from four nearby outposts- Point 4590, Rocky Knob, Hump and Point 5140. The triumphs and losses of the Kargil War remain entrenched in Indian public memory but there is little or no mention of the events that led to the Indian victory. Tololing cost us heavily in terms of men and material but it remains a grim reminder of the restraint and resolve of India’s soldiers; the men who trudged on in the face of unimaginable adversity and danger. Two decades after the Kargil War, Pakistan isn’t any friendlier but a set of uniformed Indians stand as tall as the Himalayan ranges guarding the length and width of India’s borders and her people. Today let us remember Major Adhikari, Captain Thapar and Major Gupta. Let us remember Tololing.
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